I hadn’t read this classic since my schooldays but bits of it have stayed with me over the years, particularly Lucinda Matlock: “It takes life to love Life.” Rereading it now was a mixed experience. The pieces hardly seemed like poems to me, but rather pieces of conversation, almost completely devoid of imagery, and few with any subtlety of meaning.
What they do have is emotion and plenty of it. Each poem is meant to be a single person speaking to us from beyond the grave, as though we were walking through a cemetery and the tombstones began to talk to us. They do not speak to us of Heaven or Hell but instead are preoccupied with their earthly concerns: married couples continue their hostilities; the soldier killed in the Philippines debates just and unjust wars; the unrepentant capitalist applauds his own actions while those ruined by him vent their bitterness.
What I found most interesting were the intertwining fates of the individuals, how they affected one another, and how unaware of each other they were. So many secrets and dreams and disappointments. In fact, the book seemed to me more like a novel, and I was gratified to find when I picked up his autobiography Across Spoon River that he originally envisioned the book as a novel. The autobiography gave the sources for many of Spoon River’s denizens and had the same rather peevish tone of many of the poems, as though it were written to get back at everyone who had harmed Masters, or not appreciated him sufficiently.
For the most part, the poems are depressing reading. Yet the book—with its tales of crooked politicians and hypocritical preachers, judges and newspaper editors who have been bought and paid for—is curiously contemporary. One friend of mine says that she finds it horribly depressing to think that people have not changed over the centuries. I, on the other hand, am comforted to think that today’s appalling scandals, reckless destruction, and blatant power-grabbing are nothing new. Greed, dishonesty and selfishness have always been a part of human nature, just as generosity, self-sacrifice, and integrity have been. And no society has been completely successful at taming the one while nurturing the other.